Opinion & Commentary

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An Indigenous program that’s boxing clever

Sara Hudson | The Punch | 20 January 2012

Recent bad press about Aboriginal programs in NSW might make you think that all programs designed to help Aboriginal people are failing. But this is not the case.

A boxing program, “Clean Slate without Prejudice”, has delivered great results since it first began in June 2009. 

An initiative of Redfern Superintendent Luke Freudenstein and Aboriginal leaders, the program involves police training alongside local

Aboriginal youth three mornings a week. Accompanying the ducking and jabbing is some good natured ribbing as the police and young Aboriginal people get to know each other.

Not only has the boxing program provided at risk youth with focus, self esteem and respect for their bodies, it has also helped reduced crime. 

Between 2008 and 2009, the percentage of robbery offences committed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth dropped by 80 per cent. At the time, the head of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, said the drop was “nothing more than a random variation”.

But Weatherburn might want to eat his words as crime rates in Redfern have continued to stay low. In 2010 and 2011, the percentage of robberies committed by Aboriginal offenders was 41 per cent and 44 per cent compared to 65 per cent in 2008. According to Fruedenstein rates of recidivism among Aboriginal offenders in Redfern have also sharply declined. 

The program targets youths at risk of offending - those who have committed a crime but have not yet been sentenced, those incarcerated in Juvenile Justice Centres, and young offenders who have been released back into the community. 

An Aboriginal mentor brings participants to boxing training three days a week and helps them find accommodation, employment and training, if they need it.

Participation in the program is voluntary and youth can stay on the program as long as they want. Police aim to work with judiciary to have the program form part of a suspended sentence. 

When the program first began, Aboriginal leaders selected 10 of the worst young robbery offenders to take part because of their influence over other Aboriginal youth. Following their participation in the program, none of the youth have committed any robberies. 

Impressed by the apparent success of the boxing program, I decided to visit Redfern to see it firsthand. Bleary eyed from getting up at 4.30am to make the 6am class, I stumbled into Tony Mundine’s boxing studio where I was warmly greeted at the door by a couple of young Aboriginal people. 

The early morning starts help provide participants with the discipline needed for work. Approximately half a dozen youth have become employed since taking part in the program; while a number have gone on to become mentors.

Superintendent Luke Freudenstein explained how the program was helping to break down barriers and turn young offenders’ lives around.

“Three days a week, police train with young Aboriginal offenders in Redfern, helping build better relationships with troubled local youth”, he said.

Shane Phillips, Aboriginal leader and CEO of the Tribal Warrior Association agreed. “The program is not only good for Aboriginal young people who have gone off the rails a bit but police too, particularly the ones we have trouble with, as training with us helps them see us as people too,” he said. 

Freudenstein believes it is very important for police to show they care, that they are there to help and not just to lock people up. When he walks the streets of Redfern now, Aboriginal youth stop and say “hi”.

Both Freudenstein and Shane Phillips have spoken at a number of forums around the country, emphasising the importance of police and Aboriginal leaders working together to reduce offending. 

Victor Dominello, the NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, has announced that in light of the recent report into the failure of Aboriginal employment programs a team effort between the government and Aboriginal community leaders to resolve these issues has began. 

But “working together” can become a meaningless catchphrase if it is not accompanied by concrete examples of successful practise. One of the reasons for the failure of so many NSW Aboriginal programs is that they were never monitored or evaluated to ascertain their effectiveness. 

Even when programs have been proven to achieve nothing, they can still remain in place because they seem like a good idea. According to Don Weatherburn, circle sentencing - where Aboriginal offenders are brought before their community elders for sanctioning - has had no effect on the levels of reoffending or the seriousness or number of offences but the program remains in place because it is popular.

Yet if government is committed to evidence-based policy then it should cease funding programs because they seem like a good idea and look at what is working. 

The Clean Slate Without Prejudice program is a tangible example of how removing layers of bureaucracy and having direct relationships with people can bring about positive change. Perhaps NSW Aboriginal Affairs minister Victor Dominello, should don a pair of boxing gloves and come down and see it in action before he rolls out any new Aboriginal programs.

Sara Hudson is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.